Business

John Lewis chair Dame Sharon White has been left bruised but is not fighting an immediate battle for her future following a vote of confidence among staff.

She came under pressure after the employee-owned business posted annual losses worth hundreds of millions and potential solutions to the company’s financial difficulties proved controversial.

The 61 staff, known as partners, who form the retailer’s partnership council have a say in how the business is run.

Today they held two votes – one on whether they have confidence in the chair’s decisions over the past year, and the other on whether or not they have confidence in her leadership moving forward.

Both were non-binding.

She secured a majority in the second vote, which looks ahead to the future, but lost the first on her recent record.

While the results are not enforceable, the partnership’s constitution does say the council has separate powers to dismiss the chair “in extremis”.

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The voting took place on the final day of meetings at the John Lewis-owned Odney Club retreat near Maidenhead in Berkshire.

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Dame Sharon, a former top civil servant, has made headlines with proposals considered under her leadership to improve the fortunes of John Lewis since taking over in 2020.

The company has considered selling part of the business, which would mean losing its well-known 100% employee-owned status, in an effort to raise up to £2bn of investment, according to reports.

But she ruled that option out during her remarks to the partnership council.

“The John Lewis Partnership will always be an employee-owned business,” she said. “No ifs or buts.”

She added any external investment the partnership examined had to be consistent with the rules of its constitution which guarantee employee ownership, pointing to things like joint ventures as an attractive route.

A possible move into the “build to rent” property business has also begun in a bid to diversify operations and revenue streams.

The John Lewis Partnership includes Waitrose supermarkets and John Lewis department stores.

It reported an annual loss of £234m in March and warned an unspecified number of job cuts were on the cards.

For only the second time since 1953, its staff members – known as partners – did not receive an annual bonus this year due to the firm’s financial performance.

Chris Earnshaw, the council’s president, said of the voting: “The council, chairman and board will continue to work together to ensure the long-term success of the partnership and our employee-owned model.”

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